“I’m giving up Facebook for Lent” profile photos popped up last week. A girlfriend changed hers and asked not to contact her this way, “Please use some other method– not Facebook or Messenger.” Another said, “I’m doing it again this year” without further explanation. Does skipping Facebook put them in a Lenten mindset? What is a Lenten mindset?
Last Wednesday was my fourth Ash Wednesday service–the kickoff to the season of Lent as preparation for Easter. In prior years, the liturgical service drew me into pondering the deprivation Jesus experienced in the wilderness, and connected me to the historical church’s practice of readying new believers for baptism on Easter Sunday. Not this year.
A member of the circle around the Weber grill, I tossed palm crosses from last Palm Sunday onto the coals after reciting one of the selected verses about fasting, contrite and humble hearts, trusting God to supply food and clothing, not relying on our efforts, or looking out for others. Yet the expected sense of union with fellow believers and Christ didn’t come then nor after the Eucharist.
Maybe the faded novelty left me wanting. Maybe unfamiliarity delivered solemnity more readily than knowing what to expect. Maybe comparison to the past dimmed this year’s experience. Or maybe the past year filled with giving up and surrendering made opting to spend an additional 40 days entrenched there less attractive.Not that the tough experiences were devoid of blessings and joy. Though unpleasant, I walked through them less tenuously than before. Instead of avoiding the pain, I chose to feel it, live in it, survive it and trust it would eventually lessen. Maybe surrender, deprivation and loss are more appealing when they’re a choice rather than a survival posture or the brier patch on the road to healing.
Or maybe there’s a different key that unlocks the door into Lent. Ash Wednesday highlights our mortality with the cruciform imposition of ashes from the burnt palm branches, and the liturgy repeats that we are but dust, will return to dust and need to turn from sin to Christ. We spend the next forty days (plus a few Sundays) in penitence and repentance, spiritual practices and caring for others until we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. The sacrifices and acknowledging our fallen state highlight our need for God, but they can make him seem distant, even punitive.
In Scripture, Jesus’ time in the wilderness wasn’t preparation for the cross, but for a ministry of teaching, healing and miracles. The description of his deprivation is brief, and only mentions fasting from food for forty days. The accounts appear at the beginning of the Synoptic Gospels –Matthew, Mark and Luke– where it follows the narration of Jesus’ baptism in Mark while Matthew and Luke sandwich a genealogy in between the scenes.
At his baptism the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him, and a voice from heaven spoke,“This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”This moment of theophany when the three members of the Trinity shared the stage must have blown those present away, if not immediately, then later when they reflected. It was after this full-blown endorsement of Jesus’ identity and status as God’s Son that the Spirit moved him into the wilderness to be tested* by Satan.
Our willingness to step into a wilderness of our choosing, a period of deprivation, is often characterized as a way to help us find ourselves, to know who we are before God, and break the powerful hold of good things we often treasure more than God. But for Jesus, that’s where he started. It was this awareness and affirmation that empowered him to endure forty days of fasting and Satan’s skillful barbs rather than a result of the struggle.
Yes, we’re mortal, created beings whose brief time on earth is likened to mere grass or wildflowers (Psalm 103:15.) We need an annual Ash Wednesday to break our proud hearts as we’re prone to think we’re like pyramids or the Parthenon. But we need to be reminded that before Jesus went to the wilderness, he had God’s full approval and knew his identity as the Son dearly loved by his Father. It’s not our fasting, dropping off Facebook, burning withered palm branches, or ignoring chocolate cravings that puts us in the good graces of God. We are already there as children of God led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14; I John 3:1, 2).
Jesus knew who he was, who his Father was, and that he could trust the Spirit’s leading. This is our key, too, for survival in testing and sacrifice–whether self-selected or not. Along with a recognition of mortality, we can knead this identity awareness into Lent like a baker adding flour to a sticky batch of dough. Acts of deprivation or sacrifice can’t take us there, they are the ingredients we need at the start.
*The Greek word can mean both “tested” and “tempted.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Grant Osborne, preferred “tested” because the devil was pushing Jesus to define his Messiahship and identity through temptation.